Doomed to suffer from the wounds of the past?

The George Zimmerman trial has once again revealed to us and to the world the deep racial wounds that continue to cause the nation pain and suffering. One of the jurors said that the case was not about race, but the way America thought about the case certainly was.

After the verdict was announced, President Obama urged Americans to ask ourselves if “we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.” It is a question well worth asking.

Former President Jimmy Carter, after asserting that the jury reached the right decision, said that Americans (and African-Americans in particular) must ask what we can “do about the present and the future.”

Well, what can we do? Can black Americans “put aside their feelings about the past,” as Mr. Carter put it? Can white Americans somehow help them do so? Or is America doomed to suffer from the racial wounds of the past throughout its lifetime as a nation?

Both Presidents Obama and Carter look for a day when America has been healed of those wounds, but neither offered any course of treatment to bring that about. Can anything be done and, if so, what?

We’ve tried education – that was our first treatment option. We tried bussing poorer black students to school systems in more affluent white neighborhoods, but success there has been limited. We’ve tried using Affirmative Action legislation to heal the wounds, but that seems to have had unintended side effects that frequently make the nation sick.

We’ve tried to make home ownership possible for more people, but that helped bring about the housing crisis from which we are only now recovering. We’ve funded an entire department of government – Housing and Urban Development –employing over 9,000 people. Nevertheless, many urban neighborhoods are half-deserted and still completely segregated.

These efforts, and many more like them, have been well-intended but have yielded limited and, frankly, disappointing results. We have not been able to educate, legislate or motivate racial harmony through these means. So what is left? Is our nation destined to suffer these racial upheavals forever?

It seems to me that the hope for racial healing is spiritual, not physical, and that it will come through the Church, not the government. One thing that blacks and whites have shared throughout the history of the United States is a common devotion to God, centered in Jesus Christ. Whenever our nation has made significant progress in racial healing – the abolition of slavery, voter’s rights, the Civil Rights movement – the Church has been deeply involved.

But the Church itself has been racially divided. There aren’t many black Presbyterians and there aren’t many white Missionary Baptists. It has been said that in America the most segregated hour of the week starts on Sundays at 11:00.

That is not easy to change. While blacks and whites share a common faith in Jesus Christ, they practice different ways of expressing their devotion: different worship styles, a different musical heritage and a different approach to preaching and teaching. It is not – at least it is not primarily – racial prejudice that divides the church, but a prejudice for worship styles.

Can it be overcome? I hope so. I believe so. But only when white Americans and black Americans – or, to be more precise, white Christians and black Christians – work to make it so.

I had a dream recently. In my dream I had resigned my position in the church I have served for twenty-five years to take a position in a smaller church that was racially diverse. I found the idea of leading an integrated church exhilarating. (It had been my hope to integrate the small church I pastored in a rustbelt community many years ago, but I was unsuccessful).

In my dream my wife and I came to the church on our very first Sunday, only to find all the white members in the sanctuary and all the black members in the fellowship hall. I was disheartened and bewildered. Would things never change?

I wonder that still, though I am hopeful. But I don’t think things will change because of organized programs to increase racial understanding, though such programs are to be applauded. I think things will change when the love of Christ moves black and white Christians to befriend one another, to open their homes and share their meals, to play games and live life in community.

This would, frankly, be a miracle, but it is the kind of miracle that Christ himself likes to perform – Christ in whom “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all (Colossians 3:11).

Published first in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 20, 2013

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